A Sower | Proper 10

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1 That day Jesus went out of the house and sat down beside the lake. 2 Such large crowds gathered around him that he climbed into a boat and sat down. The whole crowd was standing on the shore.

3 He said many things to them in parables: “A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. 8 Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. 9 Everyone who has ears should pay attention.”

18 “Consider then the parable of the farmer. 19 Whenever people hear the word about the kingdom and don’t understand it, the evil one comes and carries off what was planted in their hearts. This is the seed that was sown on the path. 20 As for the seed that was spread on rocky ground, this refers to people who hear the word and immediately receive it joyfully. 21 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 22 As for the seed that was spread among thorny plants, this refers to those who hear the word, but the worries of this life and the false appeal of wealth choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 23 As for what was planted on good soil, this refers to those who hear and understand, and bear fruit and produce– in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one.” (CEB)

A Sower

I love watching sports with my wife. I mean, we don’t watch often. It’s the occasional Duke basketball game, Notre Dame football game, or Detroit Tigers baseball game. But when we do sit together and watch, she inevitably cracks me up with the way she mocks the sportscasters. Two of Joy’s Spiritual gifts are mockery of the inane and sarcasm in all its forms. Sports commentators offer some of the best material for both of her gifts to flourish. As soon as a commentator asks the inevitable question, “How do you win this game?” Joy is off to the races.

“Well, Bob, it’s really complicated, but here’s what we’ve got to do: we’ve got to score more points than the other team. Basically, our team needs to score a bunch of points and make sure the other team doesn’t score as many points. We know for certain that if they score more points than us, we’ll lose the game. So, to prevent that from happening, we need to score a lot of points and keep them from scoring any. Or, at least we need to keep them from scoring as many. And that’s our strategy for winning. So, to summarize, we are going to score points and keep them from scoring points.”

Sportsing

That’s actually every sports interview, ever. There’s really nothing to add, but people talk and talk and talk as if there’s something really new to add, some valuable insight that no one ever thought of before.

Which is kind of like this parable. This is a first for me. I’ve never preached on this text. I’ve avoided preaching on this text because sermons are, in part, about interpreting the Scriptures. The difficulty with this parable is that Matthew follows it a few verses later with an interpretation. So what more is there to add? What can a preacher do with it when the interpretation that breaks the parable down is right there, included in the lectionary reading? It’s a little intimidating, to the point that I considered reading the parable, and the interpretation Matthew has Jesus provide, and have my whole sermon be three words: “What he said.”

Then, I got to thinking about parables themselves. They’re grounded in real life stuff, so they’re fairly concrete, not theoretical or abstract. And, they’re not very straightforward or direct. A parabola is a curve, and parables tend to behave the same way. They curve in and come at things from the side, and there are always multiple interpretations and vantage points.

This parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Soils, or the Parable of the Seeds, or the Parable of the Sower. In the interpretation Matthew provides in verse 18-23, the meaning is very straightforward. It’s about how different people receive the Good News that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near. Those who hear the news and don’t understand it have what was sown in their heart snatched away by the evil one. That’s the seed sown on the path. The seed sown on the rocky ground are those persons who hear the news and receive it with joy, but fall away when trouble comes because they don’t have deep roots. The seed sown among thorns are those who hear, but the cares of the world or the lure of wealth choke the news out so it doesn’t yield anything. The seed sown on good soil are those who hear, understand, and grow in the news of the kingdom. They bear fruit and yield bountifully.

We typically interpret the subjects of Jesus’ parables as us. I mean, we do that with the parable of the Good Samaritan. We think we’re the Good Samaritan, but we might be the guy who got beat up and was lying half-dead on the side of the road. God might be the Good Samaritan who comes to us and offers healing and care at God’s own expense.

In this case, we might be the sower casting seeds to those around us, meaning we’re the evangelist sharing the Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven with others. In Matthew’s day, the early church struggled in Judea. They were a minority group. And while they had some amazing gains at various times, it wasn’t always easy to be a Christian in first century Judea. So, with this interpretation, it’s about perseverance when preaching about the Kingdom of Heaven because, while many will reject the word or fall away or be choked out, a few will accept it. Those few will bear their own fruit and start sowing their own seeds.

Or, in another interpretation, we might be the soil receiving the seed, and the state of our hearts and minds will determine how the seed cast upon us and sown in our hearts will grow or not. My problem is that the state of my soil seems to change. Sometimes the seed seems to fall flat on a hard path and I don’t understand things. Sometimes my soil is a little rocky, and my growth seems stunted. Sometimes my soil gets a little choked with briars and weeds because life happens and I end up worrying about my family’s well-being. This past school year, for example, my youngest missed over 30 days of school mostly due to a fever of unknown origin. Her temperature always registered from 100 to 101 degrees. Always. And no one could figure it out. The doctors finally decided it must be her tonsils, so she’s having them removed in a few weeks. It’s not a guaranteed fix, but that’s the best they can determine as a cause. And, her surgery is on my birthday. So yeah, I can confess that my soil has been a little choked lately, for that and other reasons.

While those are perfectly valid interpretations of the parable, what if we dropped our anthropocentric airs for a moment and looked at the subject of this parable as God? While the interpretation in verses 18-23 is important, most scholars agree that it’s a later interpretation provided by Matthew for the sake of the early church not necessarily an interpretation that Jesus gave. Let’s look at the parable by itself, without the interpretation.

“A farmer went out to scatter seed. As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path, and birds came and ate it. Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. But when the sun came up, it scorched the plants, and they dried up because they had no roots. Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked them. Other seed fell on good soil and bore fruit, in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one. Everyone who has ears should pay attention” (Matthew 13:3-9 CEB).

If God is the farmer who is sowing seeds, I imagine God’s generosity is such that some of those seeds would be purposefully thrown onto the path just so the birds could get something to eat. There’s nothing in the parable itself to suggest the birds eating these seeds is a negative thing, nor is there any suggestion that the seeds were thrown onto the path accidentally, or that the farmer is being careless in his sowing. We’re simply told that some fell on the path and the birds ate them. At the risk of getting a little gross, when the bird passes the seed in a dollop, it can take root in the strangest of places. It’s possible that the farmer meant to throw some seed on the path.

The text which the lectionary provides from Isaiah suggests this very thing: “Just as the rain and the snow come down from the sky and don’t return there without watering the earth, making it conceive and yield plants and providing seed to the sower and food to the eater, so is my word that comes from my mouth; it does not return to me empty. Instead, it does what I want, and accomplishes what I intend” (Isaiah 55:10-11 CEB).

God scatters seed extravagantly and with varying results. Some of it takes root in shallow soil but doesn’t last, some of it takes root in hostile places among thorns that threaten to choke the life out of the seedling. Others take root in good soil and grow as they’re supposed to grow. Why would Jesus tell us a parable like this? Somehow I don’t think it’s so we can make the connections to the different kinds of soils as mere observers and say, Yep. That sure is how it is, and walk away holding that little nugget of insight in our hearts. Jesus was a practical guy, and the Methodism of the Wesley brothers was practical divinity. Faith requires action or it doesn’t count as faith. Understanding means that we get it and get to work.

What if the reason Jesus told this parable was to show all of us that there’s still some groundwork that needs to be done? God scatters seed and gives growth, but we’re the tenants of the garden. We’ve been the tenants of the garden since Adam and Eve. That was God’s first commandment to the human race in Genesis 1:28. Got told us to take charge of creation. If some of the seed God sows is falling on unprepared ground, maybe it’s because we haven’t cleared and tended the soil as we ought. Maybe we’ve got some work to do. Maybe we need to step into those rocky and choked places of the world and get our hands dirty until even that soil can support life to its fullest potential.

With some effort and hard work, we can turn rocky soil into something fertile. We can clear out the thorns and weeds that hinder growth of the seed God has sown. There is a lot of rocky and thorn-choked soil out there, my friends. You can walk out any door of this building and see it. You can drive down any street of this city and find it. “Everyone who has ears should pay attention!” (Matthew 13:9 CEB). There is ministry to be done. God is already sowing seed in every heart we’ll ever encounter. Our responsibility is to love those hearts so fiercely that the rocks and thorns are cleared away and all that’s left is good, fertile soil and the potential for a mighty harvest.

~Pastopher

Dance | Proper 9

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

16 “To what will I compare this generation? It is like a child sitting in the marketplaces calling out to others, 17 ‘We played the flute for you and you didn’t dance. We sang a funeral song and you didn’t mourn.’ 18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 Yet the Human One came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunk, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved to be right by her works.”

25 At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you’ve hidden these things from the wise and intelligent and have shown them to babies. 26 Indeed, Father, this brings you happiness.

27 “My Father has handed all things over to me. No one knows the Son except the Father. And nobody knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son wants to reveal him.

28 “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. 29 Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. 30 My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” (CEB)

Dance

I was a little skeptical. Okay, I was incredibly skeptical. When my wife told me about the ballroom dance lessons she wanted us to take at Miami University of Ohio, I was skeptical. I thought I would make a fool of myself. I thought it would be a waste of time and money. But she really wanted to learn to dance, and she wanted to learn to dance with me. So, I agreed. We learned East Coast Swing and Waltz. For a guy who can’t even do the Macarena correctly (and there’s video proof of that online), I had more fun with Ballroom Dance than I can adequately describe. We had so much fun that we took another class when the teacher offered one in Rumba, Salsa, and Mambo. We loved it! And to think that I almost refused to join in the dance.

Jesus uses a simile to describe his own generation of Jews. Children would often play in the marketplace when their parents were shopping for goods. Sometimes, those children would pretend that they were participating in a wedding or funeral procession. This may seem odd to us, but it’s no stranger than my children pretending Mom and Dad are bad guys and pretending to spy on us and attack us with plastic light sabers. Wedding processions were elaborate community-wide events with music, dancing, and all-around celebration. Likewise, funeral processions were large events, where professional wailers would be hired in order to get the crowd into a mournful disposition. So, children would play and pretend they were flute players, or professional wailers.

Part of the game might even be to get some of the adults to play along by dancing to their pretend flute playing, or pretending to mourn with their wails. If no adults joined in the make-believe fun, the children might call out to them, “We played the flute and you did not dance,” or “We wailed and you did not mourn.” Sometimes we adults forget how to have fun. You can imagine Jesus teaching in a marketplace and watching the children play these games. Then, using the image as a lesson. Jesus’ simile describes “this generation” as the adults who refuse to join in on the children’s games.

This text marks a rather dark time in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist has been thrown into prison, and the people of three prosperous cities, Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum, have not listened to his teachings. People didn’t seem to be catching on to the message that the Kingdom of Heaven was coming near. It’s kind of the opposite of that “The Far Side” cartoon, in which two demons are watching a guy walk by them, joyfully pushing a wheelbarrow through the fires of hell while whistling a happy tune, and one demon says to the other: “We just aren’t getting through to that guy.” People weren’t getting this whole Kingdom of Heaven thing. They were refusing to join in the games.

John the Baptist and Jesus both came to proclaim the Kingdom of Heaven, but they did it in different ways. John was a wailer. He was an ascetic, and cried out for people to repent, to be mournful for their sins. John came “neither eating nor drinking,” but this generation refused to repent and mourn. They derided him and said, “He has a demon.”

Jesus, on the other hand, was a flute player. He came with joy to share the good news of the Kingdom of Heaven, and compassionately ministered to the people who would be his future bride as the Church (Revelation 21:2 & 21:9). His was the wedding procession. He came with merriment, eating and drinking with all sorts of people: Pharisees, sinners, and tax collectors alike. But “this generation” would not dance. They scoffed at him, saying, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The people did not accept John or Jesus. They managed to make an excuse by finding a fault in how they dressed, the food they ate, or the people with whom they associated. It isn’t that “this generation” did not want to be redeemed. They all expected that the Messiah would come. But neither John nor Jesus measured up to their expectations of what the Messiah ought to be.

Jesus knew that this was the issue, so he told them a proverb, “Yet, wisdom is vindicated by her course of action” (Matthew 11:19c, my trans). In other words, the proof is in the pudding. The truth of John and Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of Heaven is in the action: what is happening in the world through Jesus. Just as Jesus told John in the first verses of chapter 11, “the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Matthew 11:4 NRSV). Jesus is saying to the people, sit out the dance if you want to, but this is the right music to kick up your heels and dance.

Jesus then offers a prayer of thanksgiving to the Father. The theology of this passage is rather complicated. At its heart is the deep, mutual, and intimate sharing of everything between Jesus and the Father. No human being knows with all completeness who Jesus is. For, “no one knows the Son except the Father” (Matthew 11:27 NRSV). God the Father is only fully known by the Son, yet the Father wants to be known by all people. This is the mission of Jesus. It is the Son who has come to reveal God to us in all fullness by proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven and what that kingdom looks like. Jesus taught us the values of that kingdom, which are God’s values.

Jesus’ statement, “and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him” may sound as if Jesus has a secret knowledge about God, and makes independent decisions about choosing which people he will let in on the secret. But this is not the case. God the Son and God the Father are joined together in so intimate a relationship that a decision of the Son is an expression of the Father’s will. In the same way, the will of the Father is incarnate, enfleshed, embodied, in the life of the Son. This is a model for how we are supposed to live. We’re to be so intimately joined with Christ that the will of God is expressed in our very words and actions.

For us, there’s also a clash between the ancient and modern ideas of logic and philosophy. People back then thought differently than we do. Even today, people in the East think differently than we in the West. We would think that if God wants to be known, then why does he hide “these things from the wise and intelligent?” We would think that if God wants to be known by everyone, he would reveal himself to the wise and intelligent. And if God has “hidden” these things from some people, how can they be blamed for rejecting Jesus? While we tend to pit human freedom and God’s sovereignty against each other, Matthew and his contemporaries believed both that people were free and responsible, and that God is in complete control of human history.

The fact is, Jesus had revealed the truth to the wise as well as the lowly. While the common masses tended to accept Jesus because of his actions and teaching, the wise thought that, no matter what Jesus did or taught, he did not fit the Messianic paradigms they had gleaned from Scripture. Or, at least, their interpretation of Scripture. The Glad Tidings of Jesus Christ are proclaimed openly to all, but there will always be people who refuse to accept the Kingdom of Heaven. There will always be people who refuse to dance. And sometimes, it’s us religious folk who already have our ideas nailed down with our hats hung on them. So when Jesus tells us he’s got a new dance move, we are liable to cross our arms and say, That’s not how I learned to dance.

Jesus then appeals to the weary and burdened to come and find rest in him. However, what Jesus offers is not a hammock on the beach. It’s a yoke. In Judaism, the yoke was a symbol of obedience to the law and wisdom of God. Rabbis often spoke of the “Yoke of the Law of Moses.” The Law was a yoke which the Jews gladly bore because obedience to the Law meant obedience to God. Likewise, Jesus’ yoke is obedience to his commandments: a willingness to serve others with humility and mercy, to love your enemies and pray for them, to deny yourself, to seek good for others. This is what the Kingdom of Heaven looks like.

Jesus’ yoke is easy and his burden is light not because there is little to do or because the way is safely paved. On the contrary, there is a cross to bear, and the world is full of wolves. The yoke of Jesus is easy and his burden is light because God is with us along the way. Obedience to the commandments of Jesus means obedience to God. When we follow the way of God we find that it is profoundly satisfying to our souls. Jesus’ yoke is more demanding, but it is much more rewarding because it is the work of the Kingdom. It feels good to be nice to people and take care of others. Have you ever noticed how infectious something as simple as a smile or a kind word can be?

Of course, scowls and meanness are infectious, too, but the way to overcome those things is by loving others with the love of Jesus Christ.

Jesus came into the world in order to reveal God to all people. He came, not so that we could refuse to mourn our sins or refuse to dance for joy at God’s salvation. Jesus came so that we could join in with the children’s game and share the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. Jesus came to proclaim that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

“Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus calls us to dance with him in the joyous Good News of the Kingdom of Heaven. Don’t make excuses as the generation of Jesus’ day did—and as it is often our very nature to do. “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” and we are invited to participate in the Kingdom, take the yoke of Jesus, and dance!

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Welcome | Proper 8

Matthew 10:40-42

40 “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me. 41 Those who receive a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward. Those who receive a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. 42 I assure you that everybody who gives even a cup of cold water to these little ones because they are my disciples will certainly be rewarded.” (CEB)

Welcome

A United Methodist pastor family I know used to live in a parsonage next door to the church he served. That meant they often had people knocking on their door, and often late in the evening. One such encounter had a Hispanic man show up with his teenage daughter and son. The father actually waited by the church steps so as not to alarm the pastor’s family. This father didn’t speak English well, so his children translated as the two families sat together on the front steps of the church to talk. The father was on his way to Michigan where he had gotten a job, and they were fleeing a bad situation with an abusive mother in their former location. The man showed the pastor all of his court paperwork, showing he had custody of his children and the documentation of his job offering up north.

After listening to their story, the pastor invited them into his family’s home. They talked some more, shared some food, and invited the travelers to stay the night with them and their toddler and newborn. The man didn’t want to impose that much on the pastor’s family so, instead, the pastor’s wife made some calls and put them up in the only available bed & breakfast in town. The man looked at the pastor and his wife and said through his children, “You aren’t from here, are you?” To which the pastor and his wife responded, “No. Why?” The man said, “Because everyone else in this town has given us dirty looks. Even at the gas station when we filled up, people looked at us like they hate us. You’re different. That’s how I know you’re not from here.”

I like that story for several reasons. First, it’s a great example of hospitality to strangers. Second, it begs the questions, How do others to perceive us, and how do we want others to perceive us?

Admittedly, when taken at face-value, this text doesn’t appear to be one that has a whole lot of direct relevancy for most modern congregations. These words are the last of Jesus’ missionary discourse where he sent out the apostles like sheep among wolves (10:16), without money, a backpack, extra clothes, or a walking stick (10:9-10). These words are about those who will potentially receive the apostles on their missionary journey. If we take the text as is within its context, if the apostles come to your door, then make sure you welcome them. Then again, if that were to happen, then it likely means the Day of Resurrection is upon us and there might not be much to worry about because all Heaven is about to break loose.

We know Jesus is talking about hospitality, but the meaning of the Greek text and the English translations is a bit of a pain. First off, where the Common English Bible translation says, “as a prophet” and “as a righteous person” the Greek is literally, “in the name of [εἰς ὄνομα],” which is how the New Revised Standard Version translates it. But what that means in Greek and how we’re supposed to render that meaning into English isn’t clear. In addition to “as” and the more literal “in the name of” it could also mean “because.” Whoever welcomes a prophet or a righteous person simply because they are those things will receive the appropriate reward.

The “reward [μισθὸν]” part isn’t clear either. In fact, the Greek word has a more neutral connotation. It simply means recompense, or remuneration for work that has been done. It can be either reward or punishment depending on the work or deed. It’s kind of like getting your just deserts. And, what is the reward? When is it given? Is it some future thing like heavenly treasures, or do you get a sticker or a sucker right away like my kids do when they go to the doctor? You were good. Here, pick a sucker out of the basket.

Neither is it clear what is meant by “a righteous person [δίκαιον],” especially in regard to the sending of the apostles. Do these labels, Prophet and Righteous Person, apply to all the apostles? And, who are the “little ones [μικρῶν τούτων]”? Many scholars say it’s a reference to the apostles because it’s a part of the Missionary Discourse. To me, however, there appears to be a theological connection to the “least [ἐλαχίστων]” in the parable of the sheep and the goats. (Matthew 25:31-46). In that sense, we could interpret this as a reversal of the expected hierarchy. If a prophet or a righteous person came to town, it would be expected that they would be properly hosted and shown hospitality. They would probably receive multiple invitations to be hosted by many families of good standing, and they could take their pick.

But these “little ones”—whether they are the apostles or anyone of low status—wouldn’t necessarily have a significant social or religious standing. If these words are connected to the “least of these” in Matthew 25, then Jesus means to tells us that giving a cup of cold water to a little one would result in the highest reward.

There’s also the fact that our point of view as the readers of this text seems to change multiple times. In some instances, we’re the apostles who are being sent out, we’re the ones to whom the apostles are sent, we’re the ones called to give a cup of water to the little ones, and we are the little ones to whom the water is given.

For only being three verses in length, the words of Jesus sure do bring up a lot of questions. So, here’s what I propose. Instead of having to choose whether the “littles ones” are the apostles or someone of low socio-economic or religious status, it might behoove us to read it as inclusive of both. I think that’s how Jesus would want us to understand it. And, despite the apparent lack of direct relevancy for modern congregations that I mentioned earlier, there is something incredibly—profoundly—relevant for us to get from this. Even if these words were meant specifically for the apostles in that moment of being sent out, the Gospels were written for us.

And, the kind of hospitality Jesus expected his apostles to receive is an extension of a larger matter of hospitality that is rooted in God’s very nature. God is love, and that love surrounds us whether we’re worthy or not, whether we’re righteous or not, whether we’re religious or not. God is the one who hosts us every day. Everything we can sense belongs to God. Even the stuff we can’t sense was created by God. We are the recipients of God’s immense hospitality, and we are meant to show we are grateful by showing hospitality and welcome to others no matter who they are, what their story is, or where they come from.

Across the Old Testament, God commands that we show hospitality and welcome to people. Exodus 22:21 says, “Don’t mistreat or oppress an immigrant, because you were once immigrants in the land of Egypt” (CEB). It’s pretty straightforward. Don’t mistreat or oppress people who are different from you. Then, Leviticus 19:34 gets a little more specific. It says: “Any immigrant who lives with you must be treated as if they were one of your citizens. You must love them as yourself, because you were immigrants in the land of Egypt; I am the LORD your God” (CEB). In fact, twice in Leviticus 19, God tells the people, “you must love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18 CEB). Love is the primary characteristic of the Christian.

That call to love our neighbor is taken up three times in Matthew’s Gospel. “You have heard that it was said, You must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete” (Matthew 5:43-48 CEB).

Our job is to love others: even our enemies! Our job is not to be the gate. Jesus already has that role covered, and this is what he says on the matter. He likens the Kingdom of Heaven to a net that people cast into the sea to gather all kinds of fish. They hauled it ashore and started to separate the good fish from the bad fish. Then, he says it will be like that at the end of the present age. The angels will separate the good from the bad. Not us. We, the church, are the net. We’re to fling our arms open wide and welcome anyone we can. If there’s any separating that needs doing, God’s angles will take care of that. We don’t.

If God’s hospitality is offered to everyone without limitation, then ours should be, too. When it comes to welcoming prophets or righteous people, we can’t tell who they are by looking at them. Our call is to welcome people with simple, basic acts of kindness. With each opportunity that presents itself, God invites us to extend genuine hospitality to each other. This kind of compassionate welcome is how we approach one another through the love of God. When we put the grace-filled hospitality of God’s love at the center of our lives and our relationships—even the difficult relationships—we are living into God’s expectations of discipleship. When we do that, when we live into showing hospitality, we are often the ones who feel rewarded.

That pastor family still remembers the Hispanic man and his children who visited them that night. To them, it wasn’t merely an opportunity to host a poor man and his two children who were passing through town. That night, they hosted Christ, and that will stay with them forever. “Those who receive you are also receiving me, and those who receive me are receiving the one who sent me” (Matthew 10:40 CEB).

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Go | Proper 6

Matthew 9:35-10:23

9:35 Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. 36 Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 37 Then he said to his disciples, “The size of the harvest is bigger than you can imagine, but there are few workers. 38 Therefore, plead with the Lord of the harvest to send out workers for his harvest.”

10:1 He called his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits to throw them out and to heal every disease and every sickness. 2 Here are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, who is called Peter; and Andrew his brother; James the son of Zebedee; and John his brother; 3 Philip; and Bartholomew; Thomas; and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus; and Thaddaeus;4 Simon the Cananaean; and Judas, who betrayed Jesus.

5 Jesus sent these twelve out and commanded them, “Don’t go among the Gentiles or into a Samaritan city. 6 Go instead to the lost sheep, the people of Israel. 7 As you go, make this announcement: ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 8 Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those with skin diseases, and throw out demons. You received without having to pay. Therefore, give without demanding payment. 9 Workers deserve to be fed, so don’t gather gold or silver or copper coins for your money belts to take on your trips. 10 Don’t take a backpack for the road or two shirts or sandals or a walking stick. 11 Whatever city or village you go into, find somebody in it who is worthy and stay there until you go on your way. 12 When you go into a house, say, ‘Peace!’ 13 If the house is worthy, give it your blessing of peace. But if the house isn’t worthy, take back your blessing. 14 If anyone refuses to welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or city. 15 I assure you that it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on Judgment Day than it will be for that city.

16 “Look, I’m sending you as sheep among wolves. Therefore, be wise as snakes and innocent as doves. 17 Watch out for people– because they will hand you over to councils and they will beat you in their synagogues. 18 They will haul you in front of governors and even kings because of me so that you may give your testimony to them and to the Gentiles. 19 Whenever they hand you over, don’t worry about how to speak or what you will say, because what you can say will be given to you at that moment. 20 You aren’t doing the talking, but the Spirit of my Father is doing the talking through you. 21 Brothers and sisters will hand each other over to be executed. A father will turn his child in. Children will defy their parents and have them executed. 22 Everyone will hate you on account of my name. But whoever stands firm until the end will be saved. 23 Whenever they harass you in one city, escape to the next, because I assure that you will not go through all the cities of Israel before the Human One comes. (CEB)

Go

Are we a community or are we the crowds? That’s the question that comes to my mind when I read today’s text from Matthew’s Gospel. The impetus for the sending of the twelve apostles is Jesus’ compassion on the crowds who were “troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd” (Matthew 9:36 CEB). As much as I appreciate the Common English Bible and the New Revised Standard Version translations, I think they both miss the mark with how they’ve rendered the text into English. The Greek in this verse suggests oppression or, at the least, neglect by those in power. The crowds were dejected and thrown aside (my translation). The crowds have been written off and not had their needs provided for by the leadership who were supposed to be their protectors and ensure their well-being.

The prophet Ezekiel spoke about the same thing: “The LORD’s word came to me: Human one, prophesy against Israel’s shepherds. Prophesy and say to them, The LORD God proclaims to the shepherds: Doom to Israel’s shepherds who tended themselves! Shouldn’t shepherds tend the flock? You drink the milk, you wear the wool, and you slaughter the fat animals, but you don’t tend the flock. You don’t strengthen the weak, heal the sick, bind up the injured, bring back the strays, or seek out the lost; but instead you use force to rule them with injustice” (Ezekiel 34:1-4 CEB).

God intends for rulers and those in leadership positions to care for their people. The failure of the shepherds—political and religious leaders—in Ezekiel’s day caused God to say, “The LORD God proclaims: I myself will search for my flock and seek them out” (Ezekiel 34:11 CEB), and “I myself will feed my flock and make them lie down. This is what the LORD God says. I will seek out the lost, bring back the strays, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak. But the fat and the strong I will destroy, because I will tend my sheep with justice” (Ezek. 34:15-16 CEB). This is the ministry of Jesus, the ministry he sent the apostles to do, and the ministry to which we are called.

The reality of our world—from ancient times to the present—is that those in positions of power and authority tend to step on the heads of the powerless and crush the livelihoods of the poor. The crowds, which are mentioned so many times in Matthew’s Gospel, are people who come seeking Jesus’s help, they amass as a crowd, but they don’t come together as a community. The crowds are made up of individuals who are driven to Jesus by their own needs. They’re in search of food and healing from all kinds of ailments.

By contrast, the disciples—which number many more than the twelve apostles and include a lot of women—had come together as a community. They took care of each other. In fact, some of those who were present at Jesus’ crucifixion were women who travelled with Jesus in order to take care of him (c.f. Matthew 27:55). Because the community of disciples came together in this way and took care of each other, they weren’t like the crowds who were often desperate and needy. The disciples were enabled to move beyond their own needs and be in ministry to others. That’s what Jesus was doing by sending out the twelve apostles. Their mission was to bring people into community by doing the same things Jesus had been doing: healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing those with skin diseases, and throwing out demons.

The apostles were to draw the people who often made up the needy crowds and build them into a community of compassion. That’s the vision God had for Israel. It’s what Israel was supposed to be: an example of right-living and a blessing to the rest of the world. Instead of jubilee, there was oppression. “God expected justice, but there was bloodshed; righteousness, but there was a cry of distress!” (Isa. 5:7 CEB).

The message the apostles were sent to deliver was simple: The kingdom of heaven has come near. It’s the same message preached by John the Baptist. It’s the same message preached by Jesus. The Kingdom of Heaven has come near. You see, one of the many things our faith tradition tells us is that we are living in a time-between-times. God has broken into our world with the incarnation of Jesus, the Son of God and Second Person of the Holy Trinity. He taught that God’s kingdom is coming, and is already here, working in subtle ways. Jesus will come again to inaugurate the Kingdom of Heaven in all its fullness and begin a new age in which God reigns and we participate in the life of God as God intended.

We, the church, are to be like the disciples who were formed into a new community: a community which exemplifies the kingdom when we exhibit love and care for each other. Are we the crowds or are we a community? Do we look upon the crowds with the same compassion as Jesus, especially when we see that those who should be helping the people aren’t doing it? Jesus described the people in those crowds as dejected and thrown aside, like sheep without a shepherd, wandering around aimlessly, not knowing where they’re going, where to find nourishment, powerless to change their lot because those in power stacked the deck against them and got away with it. One thing is certain, this world needs apostles to bring good news, to announce that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

Whenever there’s a problem in the world, I’ve heard people ask the question, why doesn’t God do something about that? C.S. Lewis had one of his protagonists, Elwin Ransom, wrestle with the same question in his book, Perelandra. The Eve-like figure of the planet, Perelandra, was being worn down by the evil one’s representative, and the protagonist knew that if something didn’t change soon, she might sin and the world would fall into ruin.

He wrote, “For the third time, more strongly than ever before, it came into his head, ‘This can’t go on.’ The enemy was using Third Degree methods. It seemed to Ransom that, but for a miracle, the Lady’s resistance was bound to be worn away in the end. Why did no miracle come? Or rather, why no miracle on the right side? For the presence of the Enemy was in itself a kind of Miracle. Had Hell a prerogative to work wonders? Why did Heaven work none? Not for the first time he found himself questioning Divine Justice. He could not understand why Maleldil [God] should remain absent when the Enemy was there in person” (Lewis, 119). It was then that Ransom realized that he was the miracle. He was the one sent to do something about it.

So are we.

We often think of the apostles as twelve men who had specific authority, and the church has put stock in the authority of the twelve apostles and how that authority has been handed down. Yet, there isn’t anything particularly fancy or special about the word apostle. It’s a compound of the Greek words apo and stolos. Apo means from and stolos essentially means equipment, especially for war purposes. In fact, in ancient Greek a stolos is usually a fleet. Herodotus described the Greek expedition against Troy as στόλος χιλιοναύτης” (stolos chilionautes), a fleet of a thousand ships.

In later Greek, the word apostle came to mean something akin to ambassador, in that the apostle was equipped and sent from someone in authority. By the general definition of the term, we are all apostles. We are told to go and make disciples of all the nations. We are sent to proclaim the good news that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.

That’s our task, and we do it by identifying with the crowds of needy people, which is really all people, indeed, every person. The apostles were initially sent out to the lost sheep of Israel, but that mission was expanded to all nations following Jesus’ resurrection at the end of the Gospel.

We’re told that the harvest is upon us, but the labor force is scarce. That’s why we are sent. We are the ones who fill out the labor shortage. Even as the need around us appears overwhelming and beyond our abilities to fix, we are still told to go because the harvest is ripe. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work. This is no time to sit around and shake our heads, wondering at the world’s problems. Jesus sends us out to get busy loving the crowds one person or family at a time.

I know, we’re United Methodists. We do lots of stuff by committee and sometimes the church works at a snail’s pace. But here’s the thing. We don’t need permission to serve Jesus and work for the Kingdom of Heaven. That’s not to say our committees are irrelevant, because they aren’t. They do a lot of important work, and those who serve on those committees are doing ministry and working for Jesus Christ.

But if you want to start a Bible study for older adults, then start one. f you want to be a big brother or big sister to an at-risk kid, go for it! If you want to volunteer at a soup kitchen or other area ministry, sign up and go. If you’re worried about doing something alone, take someone else with you. Even the apostles were sent out in pairs. If you want to start an afterschool program for the students in our community, then talk to my wife, Joy, because she’s working on it right now. We don’t have to do everything, but we ought to do something. When we do, we affect other people and make new disciples who also go out to serve. This congregation has sent a lot of people into ministry over the past decade. That doesn’t just happen. People were involved in those lives.

Are we the crowds or are we a community? When we love and care for one another, and sending workers out into the harvest to serve, when we’re as outward-focuses as we are inward-focused, that’s when we’re being formed into a community. We’re preparing for a kingdom. We’re praying for the Lord to send out workers. The problem with prayer is that it works, which means the next worker God sends into the fields might just be you.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Q&A #1

A Sunday School class in my congregation studied a lesson on Job and several members of the class had questions about the book. They invited me in to teach about Job the next Sunday. That discussion led to more even questions. I invited the class to email their questions to me, telling them I would answer them as best I could. The following are the first set of questions I got from a parishioner and my answers. I copied her questions and wrote my answers below.

Another parishioner asked me to post this exchange to my blog. A whole lot of discussion took place behind these questions and answers, so please keep in mind that I can’t provide the whole of that context here. The parts marked “Addition:” are sections I have added to my original answers in an attempt to shed some light on pieces of that missing context, but it is likely inadequate. Nevertheless, here we go:

  1. Does Satan control events in our life?

Satan does not control us directly. We are not puppets on a string. However, much the same way Eve and Adam were enticed to disobey God, we are enticed to disobey God. We are tempted to sin and, because of the Fall from Original Righteousness, we have, as Charles Wesley writes, a “bent to sinning” (see Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, stanza 2, The United Methodist Hymnal #384), which means we have an inclination to sin due to the fact that the image of God in which we are created has been damaged/distorted through the Fall. With free will, we choose to give in to Satan’s enticements. We choose to sin. Satan can’t force us to do it. So, no, Satan does not directly control events in our life. But Satan does try to get us to choose the wrong things all the time. When we do, we’re essentially allowing Satan to exercise a kind of indirect control.

  1. If so, does God give Satan permission?

God does not give Satan permission to tempt us, but Satan does it anyway. That is part of Satan’s disobedience to God. Remember that, according to pieces of our faith’s tradition, there was once a time when Satan was the most perfect of the heavenly host and a member of the heavenly court. It was then that God put the one we call Satan in charge of our world. That’s why he’s called the prince of this world. Logically, the angels cannot have been cast out of heaven unless they were there before they fell (sinned).

Check out the hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God (The United Methodist Hymnal #110). Stanza 1 mentions “…our ancient foe… his craft and power are great, and armed with cruel hate, on earth is not his equal.” Stanza 3 says, “The Prince of Darkness grim.” Satan is powerful. Since God created all things, including Satan, that power was given to Satan by God. It’s not God’s fault, however, that Satan makes bad choices and misuses the gifts God gave any more than it’s God’s fault that I make bad choices and misuse the gifts I’ve been given. The trouble with gifting any creature with a free will is not that the creature will use it, but that the creature might choose to misuse it. That’s what both fallen angels (demons) and human beings have done.

Addition: For further reading, there are a few New Testament references to the fall of angelic beings:

  • 2 Peter 2:4, “God didn’t spare the angels when they sinned but cast them into the lowest level of the underworld and committed them to chains of darkness, keeping them there until the judgment” (CEB).
  • Jude 1:6, “I remind you too of the angels who didn’t keep their position of authority but deserted their own home. The Lord has kept them in eternal chains in the underworld until the judgment of the great day” (CEB).
  • Revelation 12:7-9, “Then there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought the dragon. The dragon and his angels fought back, but they did not prevail, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. So the great dragon was thrown down. The old snake, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world, was thrown down to the earth; and his angels were thrown down with him” (CEB).

The idea that Satan and the fallen angels were cast down to Earth was taken up by C.S. Lewis in his Sci-Fi/Fantasy Space Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet / Perelandra / That Hideous Strength). Lewis demonstrated a fascinating cosmic theology in his fiction writing.

  1. Describe “grace”.

The easiest way I can describe it is alongside those other words: Justice and Mercy.

  • Justice is getting what you deserve (a sentence for doing wrong).
  • Mercy is not getting what you deserve (a sentence pardoned/forgiven for doing wrong).
  • Grace is getting what you don’t deserve (God’s love despite what we’ve done wrong). Grace is God’s loving activity on our behalf, and God’s real presence with us in our every day.

Addition: John Wesley mentions certain means of grace, which are channels through which we receive God’s grace. In his sermon, On Zeal, he placed the means of grace into two categories: works of mercy and works of piety.

Works of mercy are things we do for others and include visiting the sick and imprisoned, feeding the hungry, clothing and sheltering the poor, giving generously so the needs of others can be met, seeking justice for the oppressed, working to end discrimination, assisting victims of natural disaster, etc.

Works of piety are things we do to intentionally grow in our faith or honor God and include devoting time to private or group prayer and Bible study, fasting or abstinence, healthy living, attending public worship with the gathered faith community, baptism, Eucharist (holy communion), Christian conferencing (such as an accountability group, youth group, or even attending Annual Conference).

God is always present with us, but the means of grace are things we can do to draw ourselves close to—center ourselves within—God.

  1. Explain your belief of what happens to our soul at the end our physical death [she meant life]. 

The difficulty with answering this question is that there is no definitive answer (certainly not one in the Bible, as the ideas shifted from Sheol to things like Gehenna, Hades, and Heaven). Any answer a person gives, therefore, will include some speculation. Personally, I believe we experience resurrection and go to heaven with God when we die. I also believe that heaven does not necessarily exist within chronological time, nor would it necessarily be subject to it. God created time and, therefore, exists beyond it.

Eventually (or possibly immediately as I believe), we will experience a physical resurrection, as Jesus experienced a physical resurrection. Our resurrection body will be a physical, glorified body that is a perfect instrument of our will. Now, it is possible that we live with God in Heaven for a while as disembodied spirits until the Day of Judgment and Resurrection. I kind of like to think that God is more efficient than that, and wouldn’t want us to exist in that kind of half-life. I imagine God would want us whole as soon as possible. Since God isn’t subject to time, the Day of Resurrection could be the exact same moment in heaven for the entirety of the human race. I mean, it’s outside of time, so we might show up there at the exact same moment as Moses without any of us experiencing that soul-sleep thing that neither of us like.

Addition: First, I would add that there is no permanent end of our physical existence. Christianity believes in the resurrection of the body (see The Apostle’s Creed, The United Methodist Hymnal #882). When Jesus appeared before his disciples after his resurrection, he could be touched, he had scars, he could walk and talk, he ate food, and he cooked breakfast. His body was raised from death. He was not a disembodied ghost.

Regarding time, I liken this idea of Heaven existing outside of chronological time to looking at a history book with a timeline across the pages. We can see everything on the timeline all at once. We can see George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt – when they lived and what they did – marked on the pages, but those people are stuck in their places on the timeline. God can see all of history – the entire timeline, including what hasn’t happened yet for us – and is present in each moment across the whole thing.

We tend to think of everything in terms of chronological time but, since God created time, God is not limited to time as we are. From our perspective within time, the Day of Resurrection is a future event. For God, however, the perspective is not limited to present, past, and future. God sees the whole of time all at once and can reach into time to act in any moment. (God has shown that God is intimately involved within time. God is not a disinterested actor. The Son of God became a human being and lived within time for a while). If Heaven is where God dwells and God is not subject to chronological time, then Heaven is not subject to chronological time either. That’s how I can posit the idea that every person on the chronological timeline might end up in heaven in the exact same moment without any chronological delay or soul-sleep.

The parishioner who asked these questions didn’t like the idea that our souls might “sleep” until the Day of Resurrection. She thought it would be a colossal waste of time. While some of us might relish the idea of a nice, long nap, I agree with her wholeheartedly.

The shifting of thought about our post-mortem existence (Sheol, Gehenna, Hades, Heaven) that we find in the Scriptures is a whole other matter that would take way too much time to get into in this post. The Bible does not speak with a single, united voice on this matter, which is why I stated there is no definitive answer.

  1. You believe we will meet family in heaven?

Yes, I do. Human beings are created to live in community and I doubt God will sunder us from those we have loved while we live on Earth. I think we’ll all have one heck of a reunion in Heaven when God creates Heaven and Earth anew. I invite you to check out another hymn by Charles Wesley, Come, Let Us Join Our Friends Above (The United Methodist Hymnal #709). It talks about that very reunion. If you’ve never read C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, you should give it a try. Book 7, The Last Battle, gets into that a lot. They are quick reads, since they’re children’s books.

Addition: Until moving here, I had never heard of the idea that we would not meet and know our families and loved ones in heaven. So far, two parishioners have told me that’s what they believe.

— — —

Thanks for asking your questions. They’re really excellent! If I haven’t answered something sufficiently for you, please let me know.

Christopher

Order | Holy Trinity

Genesis 1:1-2, 4a

1 When God began to create the heavens and the earth–2 the earth was without shape or form, it was dark over the deep sea, and God’s wind swept over the waters–

4 God saw how good the light was. (CEB)

Order

Trinity Sunday is kind of like the Church’s version of Memorial Day weekend in that it’s sort of the start of summer vacation. It’s the end of the seasons that are full of remarkable holy days like Christmas, Epiphany, Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration, Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter, and Pentecost. In fact, there are no more commemorations of Christ on the liturgical calendar until Christ the King, which is the Sunday before Advent begins, and we have a long way to go until Advent.

Next Sunday is the season called Ordinary Time, and it lasts for about half the year. It’s actually called Ordinary Time because the Sundays are counted with ordinal numbers: first Sunday, second, Sunday, etc. But the term is fitting for the other meaning in that it’s mostly regular-old, ordinary Sundays with few significant holy days. I mean, there’s Thanksgiving (but that’s a Federal holiday) and Halloween/All Saints’ which is a great celebration, but there’s not much else.

The thing is, Trinity Sunday doesn’t sound like a really fun way of kicking things off. Of all the church’s dogma’s, God as Trinity—Three-In-One, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—is one of the more perplexing ideas. It’s one that most of us have real difficulty grasping. Kind of like the infinite nature of God. How can anything exist that doesn’t have a beginning? Yet, God is infinite, with no beginning and no end. Our heads start to hurt if we think about it too much, but that’s actually kind of the point. God is a mystery. God cannot be comprehended nor defined by our limited human imaginations and languages. It’s impossible! Yet, we humans are often undaunted by such things and we try anyway. A lot of writing material has been spent across the centuries in various attempts to explain the unexplainable.

Let’s look at the text because there are a few things we need to examine. Right off the bat, we have a Hebrew translation problem that has to do with time. Some translations render the Hebrew into English as, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth” (NRSV). Translations that speak of “the beginning” understand the Hebrew as a restrictive relative clause that highlights the reality of time by giving creation a specific starting-moment in time.

Others render it as “When God began to create the heavens and the earth” (CEB). These translations point to the beginning of God’s creative work rather than the beginning of time. Do you see the nuance there? “In the beginning” points to time, “When God began” points to action. While I think the emphasis on God’s action is the preferable translation, it’s true that God’s activity of creation had a beginning. Either way you look at it, God is the actor engaged in bringing order from the formless void.

That’s the next matter we need to look at. It almost makes it sound like the stuff of creation existed in some kind of primordial chaos, and God simply brought order and shape to it all, like it was a 3D puzzle that had been dumped on the coffee table, but hadn’t been pieced together yet. Here again, translations vary. Some say, “the earth was a formless void” (NRSV), and others say, “the earth was without shape or form” (CEB). The thing is, when we look closely at those words, formlessness or being without shape is a kind of infinity. If there’s no shape or form, that formlessness, that lack of shape, is a kind of nothingness that goes on forever. And a void is nothing at all. It’s empty. The text is suggesting that, when God began to create, what existed was infinite nothingness. Nothing is what existed. That’s why later tradition, most notably in 2 Maccabees, says that God created from nothing—ex nihilo.

When God began to create, God was intimately engaged with the stuff that was being given form and substance: the heavens and the earth were created. That word, create, is only used in reference to God’s work in the Hebrew Old Testament. Humans can craft stuff, make stuff, forge stuff, and bake stuff, but only God can create stuff. One of the reasons this text about creation is used for Trinity Sunday is that it reminds us that, from the beginning, God has a relationship with creation. When God began to create, God is the one who did the work. And God called creation good. God loves creation, from the most distant galaxy to the various breakfast items God provided for us that are digesting in our stomachs right now. God has been intimately engaged with everything that exists for as long as any of it has existed.

The Gospel text for today, Matthew 28:16-20, tells us to carry the relationship we have with God and each other out into the world so we can build even more relationships. That’s how we make disciples. We show people that we love them and build relationships. To a degree, we can invite others to be in relationships with us, but really, we’re sent out to show others that we desire to be in relationships with them. Making disciples is outward focused.

Another reason we use the first words from Genesis is because it gives us a glimpse, a hint, of God as Trinity. All three Persons of the Trinity are at play here. In fact, one issue I take with the Revised Common Lectionary’s cutting out of verse 3 is that it doesn’t include God speaking the light into existence. I understand why the lectionary committee did it. In John 1, John describes Jesus as both the Word and the Light, and it appears the lectionary committee was focused on Jesus as the light. Jesus is, after all, the light of the world. But in Genesis, God creates the light, and Christian theology is adamant that the Second Person of the Trinity was begotten, not created. Jesus is God. So, the lectionary understandably tries to avoid equating the light which God made in creation with the metaphor of the true light that shines on all people in John’s Gospel (c.f. John 1:4-11).

In focusing on the Son as the light, however, what I think the lectionary misses is that God’s very act of speaking is the Word through which everything came into being. It’s the power of God’s creative Word that calls creation forth into existence from the infinite nothingness. When we look at the first three verses of Genesis, we have Father, Spirit, and Word acting together to create. The Father decides to create, the Spirit moves over the waters—water being necessary for life—and the Word is spoken: “Let there be light!” (Genesis 1:3 CEB).

In verse two, the Holy Spirit moved, hovered, trembled, brooded, moved gently, some even suggest cherished over the face of the waters. The Hebrew word actually has a connotation of making the water fertile for life. God’s action in creation is intimate, loving, and deeply connected.

The Holy Trinity is something we discuss in confirmation classes over and again. We had five chapters on God because there’s a lot to talk about. We even looked at a piece of art to help us understand God as Trinity. Andre Rublev’s Icon of the Holy Trinity is my favorite icon, and probably one of the best examples of Christian iconography. It depicts the scene from Genesis 18 where three men, who are revealed as the Lord later in the text, visit Abraham and Sarah. Yet, Rublev’s genius is revealed in how the work is essentially the Nicene Creed in painted form.

Holy Trinity-Rublev4

The three men are seated around a table with a bowl of food, representing the Eucharist, in the center. The three men look alike except for the different colors of their clothing. You can tell they belong together, that there’s a kind of intimacy between them, full of love, respect, and dignity. They’re seated in a circle, but the circle isn’t closed. It’s open precisely where we stand looking into the icon. It’s an invitation for us to be in communion with God. To enter into relationship with God and share in the goodness of the Divine Trinity is what it means to have life. God is a community of love. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are perfect relationship, and we’re invited to be a part of that.

But there’s more. God not only invites us in, God has acted toward us in such a way that we know God loves us. The entire Bible is a love story about God’s activity on behalf of the human race and all of creation. That’s why caring for creation is important. It’s actually one of our responsibilities as human beings. We were given dominion, not domination. We are caregivers, not exploiters; stewards, not owners. We are called love each other and creation the way God loves and cares for us.

Whatever your politics on the matter might be, making the excuse that care for creation is bad for business is actually bad theology. I seriously doubt that God will excuse the destruction, exploitation, abuse, and violence done against God’s creation for the sake of our earning an extra dollar. We are intimately connected to creation, too. We need it to survive! We need clean air, clean water, uncontaminated and fertile soil, healthy game and livestock if we want to live. We need these things, and if we fail to protect them, it’s ultimately to our own detriment and destruction. The garden will only sustain the gardeners if the gardeners take care of the garden.

Trinity Sunday reminds us that the Persons of the Trinity are connected to each other in intimate relationship, and we are invited into that relationship. God’s actions have shown us that we are loved. We are connected to each other in the same kind of loving community and we are compelled to love the world around us so fiercely that others know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are loved, too. And we are to love what God has made because we are inextricably linked to the earth, sun, moon, and stars which God has made and called good. Trinity Sunday is all about relationships. And we are invited to go deeper, to love better, to open our arms wider, to see more clearly how intimately connected we are to God, to each other, and to all that God has made. God saw that creation was good and worth every effort of God’s love and care. So are we, and so is every person we’ll ever meet. Our call is to go and love as the Triune God has loved us.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher

Seventy and Two | Pentecost

Numbers 11:24-30

24 So Moses went out and told the people the LORD’s words. He assembled seventy men from the people’s elders and placed them around the tent. 25 The LORD descended in a cloud, spoke to him, and took some of the spirit that was on him and placed it on the seventy elders. When the spirit rested on them, they prophesied, but only this once. 26 Two men had remained in the camp, one named Eldad and the second named Medad, and the spirit rested on them. They were among those registered, but they hadn’t gone out to the tent, so they prophesied in the camp. 27 A young man ran and told Moses, “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.”

28 Joshua, Nun’s son and Moses’ assistant since his youth, responded, “My master Moses, stop them!”

29 Moses said to him, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the LORD’s people were prophets with the LORD placing his spirit on them!”

30 Moses and Israel’s elders were assembled in the camp. (CEB)

Seventy and Two

I had a plan for my life. Didn’t you have plans? I wanted to be a scientist. First, I was thinking astrophysics because I love astronomy. Then, I realized I’m not very good at math, so that wasn’t going to work out. But I thought some other kind of science would be great. So when I was accepted at The University of Findlay, I declared my major to be Environmental and Hazardous Materials Management. I loved it. I got to study chemistry, biology, geology, hydrology, and play with chemicals that could melt the tables in the chemistry lab if I wasn’t careful. It was exciting stuff!

Then the Holy Spirit ruined my plans. The whole week leading up to this moment, I had heard little promptings of the Spirit: promptings that I recognized because I’d heard them on and off since my youth. I always pushed them aside and did my best to ignore them, but this time the prompting wouldn’t go away. The Spirit refused to be ignored. Finally, the Sprit decided that it had had enough of my attempts to push the promptings away. I was studying my chemistry on Saint Valentine’s Day when God’s Spirit came crashing into me and wrecked everything. In that moment, I heard an inescapable call: it was as audible as a stereo exploding at full blast but I couldn’t quote what was said; it didn’t quite feel like a demand yet there was a finality to it that removed all doubt as to what I was supposed to do. In that moment, the Spirit shouted at me loudly and clearly that I was going into ministry.

So, I did what any normal person would have done. I shouted back. I pushed my book aside, threw my pencil across the room and shouted my disagreeable agreement. I probably could have reacted better, but I was a little ticked off. I was a good Christian boy, I had plans and God was screwing them all up. I didn’t want to be a pastor. Sometimes I still wonder what in the world God was thinking. My call to ministry still feels like an ongoing argument with God that hasn’t quite been resolved. Sometimes I feel like Jonah grumbling all the way to Nineveh with the rancid smell of fish vomit still clinging to my skin. My call to ministry has been a continual thing. It’s been a kind of Spiritual evolution rather than just a moment in time. It’s every day. God has added new elements to my call, such as writing. What we are right now is not necessarily who we will be when God is done with us. God’s Spirit keeps moving and prompting us in fresh ways. In fact, I would argue that God is never really done with us.

The Spirit moves in ways that we find disconcerting. If we can expect one thing of the Spirit, it’s that it will do unexpected things. We find comfort in our walls, in our definitions, in our plans, and even in our ability to determine the outcome of whatever it is we’re doing. But the Spirit has a way of frustrating our best attempts at maintaining our comfort zones.

Take this story about Moses for example. Numbers 11 tells us about a leadership crisis, whereas the section we read is one of those little extra bonus stories. The background is that the people are complaining. They’re grumbling that they don’t have any meat to eat: all they have is this dad-gum manna. Manna in the morning. Manna for lunch. Manna for dinner. Manna, manna, always manna: no vegetables and no meat! They’re ready to go back to slavery in Egypt just so they can get some real food.

Then Moses complains to God that he’s been turned into a single mother for an entire nation of whiney, moaning children and he can’t do this by himself. So, God immediately finds a way to give Moses some relief from this burden of leadership. God has Moses choose seventy elders from among Israel and place them around the tent. Then the Lord descended and took some of the Spirit that was on Moses and gave it to the seventy, and they began to prophesy. The Spirit of God falling upon these seventy legitimized their role as leaders of the community. They would share Moses’ burden.

But the problem is that there were these two other guys who were not placed around the tent. They were out in the camp. But the Spirit spilled over into the camp and landed on Eldad and Medad. And they, too, began to prophesy. Then, some little tattle-tale runs to Moses and tells him about the problem. “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!”

The problem is that these two weren’t authorized by Moses for this job. Verse 24 tells us that Moses assembled and then placed seventy elders around the tent. Eldad and Medad weren’t among them. Joshua is certain that God made a mistake. Maybe God wasn’t carrying the cup with two hands and spilled some Spirit on these two guys accidentally. Who knows? But Joshua sees this unexpected movement of the Spirit as an affront to Moses’ authority because these two weren’t among the elders chosen by Moses. If they had been, then Joshua wouldn’t have been upset about it. Joshua wants to get the situation under control so he starts hollering, Moses! Stop them! The Spirit got away from us again!

I can almost see Moses shaking his head as he responds, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the Lord’s people were prophets with the Lord placing his Spirit on them!” Moses was exasperated. He’s ready to take all the help he can get, so if the Spirit got dumped on two extra elders, fine by him. They can help shoulder the burden of leadership, too.

And one of the things we miss here is that the Spirit was placed upon these elders, not for their blessing, but so that they would share Moses’ burden. The anointing of the Spirit is burdensome. The prophets were often ready to give the burden up. But the shared burden becomes a blessing for the community.

Because the movement of the Spirit is unpredictable, there will always be course corrections, new discernings, and adjustments along the way. So we have to make room for each other to fulfill the call that God has placed and continues to place on our lives.

On the Day of Pentecost we celebrate the time God got extremely sloppy with the Spirit. God dumped the Spirit out on all kinds of people. And the Spirit continues to be poured out on the church and the world today. We have our rituals, our means of grace, and our sacraments where we know the Spirit is working and being poured out. We know the Spirit is poured out on us in baptism, in confirmation, in Holy Communion, in our prayers, in our study of Scripture, in our gathering together to worship. We know the Spirit is here, right now, breathing into our hearts, whispering into our minds, tugging at our wills. We call today the Day of Pentecost, but in some ways what happened on the Day of Pentecost has never ended. We live in a continual Pentecost where God’s Spirit is continually poured out on us and the world around us.

We have to keep in mind that the Spirit is also being poured out beyond our walls. Sometimes the Spirit gets really sloppy, at least from our perspective. We sometimes think we are the proprietors of the Spirit because we’re the church. But the Spirit is already at work inside and outside of our faith community. We don’t have a monopoly on the Spirit, nor do we dictate where the Spirit goes.

Tom Heaton told me about one of his plane trips to Guatemala, on which he saw a mission team wearing t-shirts that said, “Bringing God to Guatemala.” And Tom being Tom confronted the leader of the group and told them that he’s lived in Guatemala for years and found that God has been working in and among the people there for ages, long before this missionary team ever put on their extraordinarily arrogant t-shirts. The Spirit is moving everywhere, my friends, long before we even think about it.

Pentecost was only the beginning. It didn’t fix all the church’s problems any more than the pouring out of the Spirit on the 70 Elders plus Eldad and Medad fixed everything for Israel, or any more than our own Confirmation or joining the church fixed everything for us. We still have problems, arguments, and things we need to work out. We need the Spirit to be poured out upon us again, and again, and again. Pentecost needs to be a daily event for us or we’ll get lost in the unimportant and fail to see and hear where the Spirit might be trying to lead us. When the Spirit crashes into your mind and says, “You need to do this! You’ve put it off long enough. No more excuses! Get to it! Now!” Well, what will you do, even if it’s not a call you expect?

In what ways is the Spirit of God tugging on your heart? Every one of us needs to listen and keep watch because God’s Spirit calls us and is poured out upon us in unexpected ways. We don’t know where or how the Spirit will be poured out today or tomorrow, or upon whom. But the Spirit of God is the purveyor of Holy Chaos, so we can be sure that we’ll be surprised.

I pray that, in your life and in mine, God will not hold the cup with two hands, but will let the Spirit be spilled out all over our lives. God never makes a mistake. When the Spirit is poured out, be assured it is no mistake. Answer the call. Take on the burden of the Spirit’s calling no matter what it is. Remember that Pentecost is not an end. Your call and the calls that will yet come, whatever they might be, are not ends. These things are continual, and the Spirit offers course corrections along the way as God makes all things new.

So listen to the Spirit. Be watchful. Who knows what the Spirit will do next?

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!

~Pastopher